NASA: How a set of athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics were immortalised on Voyager space mission

From the Olympics to outer space The untold story of Munich ’72


Best experienced with sound

Unmute Mute

The terror attack came shortly before dawn. While thousands of athletes were resting in Munich’s Olympic Village, the peace of a chosen few was forever shattered.

September 5, 1972, was the day the Olympic Games changed irrevocably.

At 4:30 a.m., eight Palestinian gunmen, linked to the militant group Black September, brazenly scaled the fence surrounding the village and made their way to an apartment complex housing the Israeli athletes.

By sunrise, a weightlifting coach and a wrestler had been murdered and nine Israelis were hostages. As tense negotiations began, the media tuned in and the world held its breath.

But any hopes of saving them ended in desperate tragedy.

Shortly after midnight, all the hostages were dead, slaughtered during a botched rescue attempt at a nearby airbase. For the first time in the history of the Games, the Olympics were postponed for 24 hours.

Pictures of the aftermath were chilling: a bloodstained bedroom -- the wall riddled with bullets -- and the charred, mangled wreckage of a Bell helicopter.

But it was the sinister footage of a masked gunman on the balcony, menacing yet expressionless, that became the defining image of the 1972 Munich Olympics.

A Palestinian linked to the militant group Black September is seen on a balcony in Munich during the attack in September 1972. Credit: Everett/Shutterstock

However, there is another striking image that ultimately emerged from those Games -- so fleeting, and seemingly irrelevant, that nearly everyone missed it at the time. After all, it wasn’t taken during a final, or even a semifinal.

As the photographer clicked away at four sprinters in full flight on the track, neither he nor his subjects could have had any idea that the picture was destined to represent all that was good about humanity.

Five years later, that image was placed on a rocket and blasted into space. In time, that spacecraft will be all that is left of our planet -- the only proof that we ever existed. But as their athletic portraits were sent hurtling through the cosmos, those four runners were totally oblivious to that fact.

Fastest in the world

Fastest in the world

Running is the purest form of any sport -- nobody needs to explain the rules of a foot race. And sprinters are usually the biggest stars at any Olympic track meet; everybody wants to stake claim as the fastest in the world.

When Edwin Roberts took up running, he wasn’t doing it for fame, fortune or international glory, but for something much sweeter -- at least to a young boy.

Growing up in Trinidad in the 1940s, the fastest kid in the neighborhood would run around the block to try and win a bag of white sugar, as much a status symbol as it was a delicacy.

By 1964, he was tasting international success and was the toast of his country. With a 200-meter bronze medal around his neck -- and two years after Trinidad and Tobago had gained independence from colonial rule -- Roberts became his country’s first Olympic medalist. He would depart Tokyo with a second bronze, in the 4 x 400m relay.

Edwin Roberts, right, waves during the award ceremony for the 200m at the Tokyo Olympics in October 1964. The Trinidadian sprinter finished third while the Americans Henry Carr, center, came first, and Paul Drayton second. Credit: Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Four years later, he was disappointed not to be on the podium in Mexico City. He’d finished fourth in the 200m and watched from the stadium as John Carlos and Tommie Smith defied the US Olympic Committee, raising their black-gloved fists on the podium in silent protest for racial justice.

The American sprinters had offered Roberts a glove, just in case he finished in the top three. He not only missed out on a coveted medal, but also the chance to appear in one of the most infamous pictures in the history of world sport.

The ’72 Olympics A Games marred by terror


The Olympics changed forever in 1972. Early in the morning of September 5, eight Palestinian gunmen scaled the fence surrounding the Olympic Village and headed for the Israeli athletes. By sunrise, a weightlifting coach and a wrestler had been murdered, and nine Israelis were hostages. A botched rescue attempt eventually ended in tragedy, and all nine hostages were killed. For the first time in the history of the games, the Olympics were postponed for 24 hours. Keystone/Getty Images

By 1972, he was competing in the Olympics for the third and final time. An Olympic medal eluded him again, but it was a Games he’ll never forget.

In the second week of the 1972 Olympics, he told CNN that he was training his camera on the commotion next door in the village, trying to focus on one of the Palestinian terrorists. He said he only ducked from view when a rifle was swung in his direction.

In both ’68 and ’72, as historic events were unfolding around him, Roberts was either just out of frame or behind the lens.

And the photo that will one day be the only record of his existence is an image he didn’t even see until he opened his email almost half a century later.

‘Just tumbling’

‘Just tumbling’

When the defining image of Cathy Rigby was being captured, she was almost totally in the dark.

At the age of 19, the American gymnast was preparing for her second trip to the Olympics and she couldn’t see a thing; fortunately for her, the Olympic routine she was executing in a lime green leotard on the balance beam was something that she could do with her eyes shut. A stroboscopic light was all that photographer Phillip Leonian needed to record Rigby’s various stages of lateral movement.

When Rigby was growing up in Long Beach, California, in the 1950s, she says she didn’t even know the word “gymnastics,” telling CNN from her home, “People thought of it as just tumbling, it was just -- you flipped around.”

In those days, the Soviets, Czechs, East Germans and Japanese gymnasts were vaulting up the medal tables; the Americans (who are now almost totally dominant) had yet to realize anything like their full potential.

So when Rigby went to the Mexico City Olympics in 1968, she was very much a pioneer.

“I was very sheltered, [and] there certainly was a loss of innocence.”

Cathy Rigby


Cathy Rigby of the US competes on the balance beam during the gymnastics competition at the Olympics in Mexico City in October 1968. Rich Clarkson/NCAA Photos/Getty Images

By her own admission, she was a naïve, wide-eyed child in those days, seeing the world in all its beauty, but she would soon be exposed to its vicious and ugly nature.

From the deadly riots, which left hundreds dead on the eve of the Games in Mexico City, to the backlash faced by Smith and Carlos for their Black Power salute and then the carnage of Munich, Rigby’s Olympic career provided a brutal education.

“I was very sheltered, [and] there certainly was a loss of innocence,” she said. “We all left with a sense of this reality, this is what happens; it wasn’t until many months or years later that I really could understand.”

But it was the destiny of that stroboscopic image on the balance beam one year before Munich that Rigby says she’s spent her lifetime trying to understand.

A consummate professional, she was initially most concerned about her form: “Were my toes pointed? My legs straight? Because that’s how I thought back then.”

Several years later, a friend of her first husband came to visit and he asked, “Do you know you’re on the Voyager?” It was the first Rigby had ever heard of it: “I said, ‘What are you talking about? What is the Voyager?’”

Space exploration

Space exploration

Olympic athletes compete in cycles of four. Every four years -- global pandemics permitting -- there will be a summer Olympiad.

In 1972, the 200m sprinters each had to negotiate four rounds of competition, the last of which would determine the medals.

In every way, timing is key: Olympians seek optimal performance levels in the year of the Games, while in competition they speed up through the rounds, conserving energy to deploy in the final.

Space exploration is not entirely different.

On July 1, 1972, while those athletes were in the final countdown to Munich, NASA scientists were celebrating the approval of a new project to explore the outer solar system.

The mission would ultimately be known as Voyager,” a daring adventure to chart the skies above the four outer planets -- Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune and the unknowns of interstellar space beyond them.

Voyager was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity; it could only work while those planets were conveniently aligned, using the orbit of each as a stepping stone to speed up the probe in search of the next.

Missing the window would mean a wait of several generations -- another 176 years.

“In those days, spacecraft only lasted a few years”

Ed Stone

Ed Stone was tapped as NASA’s chief project scientist for Voyager.

At this point, America’s space program was barely 20 years old. “In those days, spacecraft only lasted a few years,” Stone told CNN.


Ed Stone, chief project scientist for Voyager, pictured in 1979. Ted Thai/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

So the team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) decided to build twin probes “for twice the probability … at least one will get [to Saturn],” Stone said. They would be launched two weeks and two days apart in the summer of 1977.

But it wasn’t until the eve of the first launch that Voyager assumed an additional purpose.

If the mission was successful, it would continue into interstellar space on a trajectory towards another star. Maybe, just maybe, one or both of the probes would be found by some other intelligent life form.

Among the package of greetings from Earth: a series of poses by a gymnast on a balance beam, and four of the fastest men from our solar system -- frozen in time from round one, heat three of the 200m event at the 1972 Munich Olympics.

Voyager timeline

NASA's Voyager 1 and 2 are the longest-flying spacecraft in history; 43 years after they launched, both are still going strong and sending back data as they explore interstellar space.

Source: NASA/JPL

1965 Summer

Calculations show a rare opportunity will present itself in the late 1970s, as the planets will align in a way that only happens once every 176 years. Scientists see a chance to send a spacecraft to the four outer planets of the solar system.

1972 July 1

NASA approves the mission, naming it “Mariner Jupiter/Saturn 1977,” as plans get underway at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California to launch twin probes in five years.

1977 March

The mission is renamed “Voyager.”

1977 August 20

The first probe, Voyager 2, launches from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. One copy of the Golden Record is attached to the probe, carrying the message of Earth.

1977 September 5

Two weeks later, Voyager 1 launches, with a second copy of the Golden Record. Though it launched second, it receives the name Voyager 1 because it will reach Jupiter and Saturn before its counterpart.

1979 March 5

Voyager 1 encounters Jupiter and soon discovers the first known active volcanoes outside of Earth on the moon Io, and a cyclone-like storm in Jupiter’s Great Red Spot.

1981 August 25

Voyager 2 makes its closest approach to Saturn, taking new images of icy moons and terrain, which suggest geological activity and weather patterns.

1986 January 24

For the first time, Uranus is seen up close as Voyager 2 passes by the planet. Images from the probe reveal 11 new moons and measure temperatures lower than any other planet in the solar system.

1989 August 25

Voyager 2 reaches Neptune, making it the first to observe the planet and the first to visit all four outer planets beyond Earth.

1990 February 14

After the cameras of Voyager 2 were turned off to conserve power (and because it will never fly close enough to another astronomical object to photograph again), Voyager 1 takes the last images of the mission: the “Solar System Family Portrait.” It is the only set of images showing Venus, Earth, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune around the sun. Voyager 1’s cameras are also shut down remotely by JPL engineers.

1998 February 17

Voyager 1 becomes the farthest human-made object in space to journey from Earth.

2012 August 13

Voyager 2 breaks the record once set by the Pioneer 6 mission (which launched December 16, 1965) as NASA’s longest-operating mission.

2012 August 25

For the first time ever, a human-made object enters interstellar space. Still collecting and transmitting data, Voyager 1 passes beyond the heliopause (“the boundary between our solar bubble and the matter ejected by explosions of other stars”) and into interstellar space – though the crossing itself is not determined until the following April.

2018 November 5

Six years later, Voyager 2 “reaches the space between the stars,” entering interstellar space. Both probes are expected to last long after Earth is gone, orbiting the Milky Way galaxy every 250 million years.

Kingdom in the sky

Kingdom in the sky

More than 7,000 athletes lined up to compete in Munich, representing 121 different nations.

Most knew that they wouldn’t experience the joy of taking a bow on the podium, but simply being there was achievement enough. All had incredible stories to tell and some were making history, just by making it to the start line.

Lesotho is known as The Kingdom in the Sky; perched 4,500 feet above sea level, it’s a tiny, landlocked country, surrounded entirely by South Africa. Its people, known as Basotho, speak the language of Sesotho.

Lesotho gained independence from the United Kingdom in 1966 and was eventually recognized by the International Olympic Committee on New Year’s Day, 1972.

Later that year, Lesotho sent a lone representative to compete in the Games, a 27-year-old sprinter named Motsapi Moorosi.

He was a curiosity in Munich; local media were keen to learn more about this new country on the scene.

You run like Motsapi! The legacy of Lesotho’s first Olympic athlete runs deep


The small African nation of Lesotho sent its first Olympian to Munich in 1972. But Motsapi Moorosi, a 27-year-old sprinter, was representing more than just his country: he was the first Black athlete from Southern Africa to complete at the Games in 68 years. Family handout

He told his family that a television station ran a quiz asking if anybody knew what Lesotho was; the story goes that more than one reply guessed it was an Italian wine.

A humble young man with an easy smile and a ready laugh, his name was synonymous with speed. His friends and family recalled to CNN that everyone would proclaim, “You run like Motsapi!” He was putting his country on the map. However, his journey to Munich was about much more than just Lesotho.

Born in South Africa to a Lesotho native, he could easily have represented the Rainbow Nation, but South Africa hadn’t been invited to the Games since 1964 –- punishment for its apartheid government’s abhorrent racist policies.

As he proudly marched instead behind Lesotho’s then green, red and blue flag, featuring the traditional straw hat mokorotlo motif, he was representing his entire region; Moorosi was the first Black athlete from Southern Africa to compete at the Games in 68 years.

Moorosi only ran in three Olympic races -- a heat in the 100m and the first two rounds of the 200m -- but he was a trailblazer in more ways than he could ever have imagined.

Su Wen-ho

Su Wen-ho

When the school day was over in Taiwan, Su Wen-ho would work in the fields near his village, tending the crops; but he was dreaming of much bigger things -- the chance to be an athlete and compete on the world stage.

Yang Chuan-kwang was his inspiration; the so-called “Iron Man of Asia” won the decathlon at the Asian Games in 1954 and ’58 and landed a silver medal at the 1960 Olympics in Rome -- the first for his country.

Su made two trips to the Games; in 1968, he finished last in his 100m heat, his only race in Mexico City. Later, he watched from the stadium as Smith and Carlos bowed their heads and raised their fists, a gesture he didn’t understand at the time.

Taiwan's Yang Chuan-kwang competes in the pole vault event of the decathlon at the Rome Olympics in September 1960. The "Iron Man of Asia" inspired Su Wen-ho. Credit: Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

There was some excitement in his 100m quarterfinal in 1972; confusion over start times meant two of the medal favorites -- Americans Rey Robinson and Eddie Hart -- arrived late, leaving them disqualified and heartbroken. Meanwhile, Su made it to the quarterfinals of both the 100m and 200m events in Munich.

He didn’t recall there being many photographers at his events, so when he saw an image of himself running an outside lane in the first round of the 200m in Munich, he assumed it must have been captured from the place where it was ultimately destined; he thought that the picture was taken by a satellite.

But he didn’t even see it until he was 75 years old -- on July 6, 2020, and he had no idea why it was so significant.

‘You know there are other worlds?’

‘You know there are other worlds?’

Sport is a means of uniting humanity, breaking down barriers -- and nowhere is that more apparent than at the Olympic Games.

Athletes mingle, being exposed to other languages and learning to respect other cultures. For many athletes and sports fans, the world just seems a little bit smaller.

But what if your interest lies above the horizon? What if you think there might be a whole other form of intelligence out there among the stars? How would you go about trying to communicate with them?


Frank Drake pictured in his Cornell office in 1974. Courtesy Frank Drake

Frank Drake is one of the leading astronomers of his time and that question has been the focus of his life’s work.

Speaking of the moment that crystalized his destiny, he told CNN, “I was only about eight years old when my father said, ‘You know there are other worlds?’ That implied there were other worlds with creatures just like humans and ways of life just like mine.”

With the dawn of the space race in the 1960s between the US and the Soviet Union, he had an opportunity to try and learn more -- working on projects to fasten messages to rockets that were being dispatched to the heavens.

NASA’s 1977 Voyager mission, however, presented a golden opportunity to properly introduce humanity to anything intelligent that might be living out there.

Recalling events that took place almost half his lifetime ago, the 90-year-old Drake was a leading voice on a team that had to figure out how such a communication might work, but much more importantly, what should we say?

“You are trying to make contact with another civilization,” he said, trying to capture the grandeur of the project. “If you succeed, surely very big things are going to come from that. What you’re doing is of profound importance to the future of humanity.”

Pioneer 10, the first spacecraft to leave our solar system, carries a message to other worlds. The plaque was designed by Drs. Carl Sagan and Frank Drake, and the artwork was prepared by Linda Salzman Sagan. Credit: NASA

Space Race In the midst of the Cold War, a message of unity


Despite hitching a ride on American spacecraft at the height of the Cold War, the Golden Record was intended as a message from all of Planet Earth. With this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, the team chosen to pick the contents of the record tried to paint a diverse picture of humanity. NASA

Working with famed astronomer and scientist Carl Sagan, they set upon the idea of encoding a phonograph record, the kind of thing you’d have used to listen to Fleetwood Mac or the Eagles at 33 1/3 revolutions per minute back in 1977.

“Carl liked that a lot,” Drake said, “because he thought one of the prime signs of our intelligence was the quality of our music.”

Just like the ultimate prize at the Olympics, the disc would be cast in gold; accompanying the music would be spoken greetings in 55 different languages, various sounds including the songs of a humpback whale, and a series of photographs depicting the story of Earth.

You might think that such a profound and meaningful quest would have come with a price tag to match its ambition, but in truth, it was barely an afterthought.

The Voyager program employed a staff of hundreds and, when the cost was calculated in 1989 dollars, NASA estimated that it had cost $865 million. In today’s money, that would have been somewhere between $1.5-2 billion.

In contrast, the mission to introduce humanity to the universe was cooked up by a handful of people in just six weeks.

And their working budget doesn’t need converting from 1977 to 2020 numbers, because it was next to nothing.

Sprint king

Sprint king

In the beginning, everything is silent; “When you start running, you see and hear nothing,” says Valeriy Borzov, “then the sounds begin to come in, noises from nearby opponents -- one groans, one screams, one whispers or something else.”

The Ukrainian sprinter is describing the intensity of being a laser-focused athlete in the midst of an Olympic sprint, an event so competitive that “six people can sometimes fit in two hundredths of a second.”

He has always tried to remain grounded. He explained that while training as a youngster he’d like to run on the sand, the fragility of the earth beneath his feet helping to strengthen “those so-called starting muscle groups. I was able to get the training that others do not get,” he added.

Borzov might have chosen to play hockey for a living, but it was the dethroning of an older, revered opponent in the local championship in Ukraine’s southern city Nova Kakhovka that persuaded him to stay on the track. “He was literally a king there; that’s when it started. I thought this could bring some kind of success.”

International success quickly followed; two Olympic gold medals in Munich plus four European titles made him a national hero. At the age of 22, Borzov received the Soviet Union’s highest civilian honor, The Order of Lenin.

Number 932 The legendary Soviet Olympian Valeriy Borzov


The Ukrainian sprinter was the poster boy of the 1972 Munich Olympics. In the 200m final, he took home the gold medal. But for all his accomplishments, it will be the photo snapped during the first round of that event that will outlive us all, fitting of his nickname: "Chelovek Raketa," or "Rocket Man." John Dominis/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Having become the first European man to win the Olympic sprint double (a feat only previously achieved by North Americans) he was now being mentioned in the same breath as Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space.

Recalling the honor, he told CNN, “It was important for me that I walked on virgin soil. I walked this path and wrote it down in history.”

But by the time he got to the Montreal Games in 1976, he was a marked man -- literally. Moments before the 100m final, he was informed that a threat had been made against his life and that there was a sniper in the stadium; remarkably he summoned up the courage to run the race and still took home the bronze. He said that he didn’t want anyone to think that he was weak.

Four years previously, in the Munich Games marred by the dreadful terror attack, he was closer than he would have liked to the threat of violence -- he said he witnessed some of the terrorists scaling the fence with assault rifles and his accommodation block was just 150 meters from the targeted Israeli team.

“These guys with stockings on their heads were walking on the balcony with rifles and people just stood around watching as if it was a movie,” he recalled. “That still kind of sends shivers; people didn’t believe death was near.”

As terror struck, the Ukrainian-born sprinter was already the star of the Games; to be the fastest man in the world and a double Olympic champion is the dream of any athlete. He was the poster boy of the ’72 Olympics.

Borzov, surrounded by members of the press, waves after winning the gold medal in Munich. Credit: The Asahi Shimbun/Getty Images

But he hadn’t yet basked in the glory for a full 24 hours before the narrative of the Games changed forever. His winning time in the 200m was a neat and tidy 20 seconds flat, but he may ultimately be remembered as number 932.

With thigh muscles bulging and a seemingly effortless gait, that’s how he appeared in the first round of the event, during which very few people would have been paying attention when the camera froze him in time.

That image, however, will be one of the few that survives this Earth, when the Sun explodes and consumes our planet in a few billion years’ time.

How fitting that Valeriy Borzov was once known as “Chelovek Raketa”; they used to call him “Rocket Man.”

‘Lasting a thousand million years’

‘Lasting a thousand million years’

The challenge of introducing ourselves to an alien civilization in 2020 would be daunting enough, but at least we’d have an abundance of technology with which to try. Not so much in 1977.

Back then, the best of our scientists and engineers were capable of building contraptions that could fly out beyond our solar system, but we were still decades away from the internet and digital technology.

In the present day, we would simply attach a portable hard drive with terabytes of video and other data; in 1977, there was only room for roughly 120 still images, most of which had to be in black and white.

What's on the Golden Record?

Two identical phonograph records were affixed to the twin Voyager spacecraft and launched into space in August and September 1977. Selected by a small team in only six weeks, the record contained still images, voice greetings, musical selections, and sounds from Earth – all designed to introduce our planet and the human race to any intelligent life-form that might someday cross paths with Voyager in interstellar space. The selections were made to represent the best of humanity, but the voice that opens with a greeting is that of the UN Secretary-General at the time, Kurt Waldheim – who was later accused of complicity in Nazi war crimes long after the records launched to space.



As many as 120 still images and illustrations were encoded onto the record in analog form, depicting everything from airplanes and grocery stores to DNA strands and mathematical equations. In addition to taking some of their own photos of everyday life, the team combed through magazines and newspapers to find relevant images about the way humans lived and what Earth itself looks like.

An airplane in flight. Credit: Frank Drake
Residents of Sangmélima, Cameroon, help a neighbor build a new home. Credit: UN Photo
A structure of DNA. Credit: Jon Lomberg


Like many of the images, music selections had to clear copyright hurdles. That’s why you won’t find any hits from The Beatles on there; the record company denied the request. But plenty of other selections were included, for a total of 90 minutes’ worth of music -- from Johann Sebastian Bach and Louis Armstrong, to a wedding song from Peru and a Navajo chant.


The record came with symbolic instructions on how to play it, assuming whatever intelligent life finds it wouldn’t speak or read any language found on Earth. But that didn’t stop the team from including spoken greetings in 55 different languages and dialects. The first greeting is in Akkadian, a language first spoken in Mesopotamia some 6,000 years ago.


How would you describe what Earth sounds like to someone who’s never been here? That was another question the team tried to answer, selecting a variety of both natural and man-made sounds. Included on the record: tractors and buses, a human heartbeat, footsteps, wind, rain and surf, and animal noises such as birds, dogs, and even a hyena.

Then there was the challenge of where to find them and in such a short period of time.

Jon Lomberg was mainly responsible for curating the images.

“When I tell people about this project, there are two numbers that make people gasp,” he told CNN from his home in Hawaii.

“The first is that the record is going to last a thousand million years and the second is that we had just six weeks to do it. You could spend years on this, but we only had six weeks.” Imagine, a month and a half in which to tell the story of us, using only single frames and without the help of a powerful internet search engine.

If the aliens ever discovered that one of the research team secretaries had to raid her garage for the 30 years’ worth of National Geographic magazines in storage, they likely wouldn’t have thought that we were terribly sophisticated.

Part of Jon Lomberg’s photo search chart, taped on the wall of his office at Cornell. Note the circled "Sports Illustrated Cathy Rigby." Credit: Courtesy Jon Lomberg
Amahl Drake, Frank Drake’s wife and member of the team, sorts through slides on a conference table full of National Geographic magazines and other reference material in Frank’s office at Cornell. Credit: Courtesy Amahl Drake

“I was looking for images of a hundred different topics,” Lomberg said, “agriculture, families, schools, science, medicine, sports. I had to physically sit down with books and magazines and look through them to find the pictures that I wanted.”

On Voyager’s Golden Record, you’ll find images of everything associated with our little neighborhood in the Milky Way galaxy: the planets of our solar system, animals, landscapes, science, technology, architecture and, of course, us -- human beings.

Image #31 is a fetus, #33 depicts a birth, #34 demonstrates breast feeding and sprinkled throughout are people interacting with one another, in families and in communities.

But there’s something much more fundamental that had to be conveyed: How exactly do homo sapiens move?

“For all they knew, we were things that could move very slowly, with very little strength,” mused Frank Drake, “like sloths or worms.”

Of all the pictures which were sent on a grand tour of the planets and which are now traveling through interstellar space, barely 35 are of recognizable people and many of them wouldn’t be known outside of their immediate social groups.

Jon Lomberg practices poses for a supermarket photo to be included on the Golden Record. Credit: Courtesy Jon Lomberg

But in order to show athletic ability and range of motion, who better to call on than professional athletes? Even if some of the men and women who were selected had already retired, and none of them had any idea about it.

‘This is a message from Planet Earth’

‘This is a message from Planet Earth’

When Lomberg turned the page and saw the picture of Su Wen-ho, Motsapi Moorosi, Valeriy Borzov and Edwin Roberts in full flight, he instantly knew that it was going to be on Voyager.

“One of the prime directives that Carl Sagan gave me was ‘this is not a message from the US,’” Lomberg said. “‘This is a message from Planet Earth.’”

For that reason, Lomberg had always imagined that the Olympics might lend itself to their project and here it was, neatly encapsulated in a single frame: “This wonderful photo had representations of different ethnicities -- that added a sense of a global nature to it.”

From left: Su Wen-ho of Taiwan, Motsapi Moorosi of Lesotho, Valeriy Borzov of USSR, and Edwin Roberts of Trinidad compete in the first round of the 200m race in the 1972 Munich Olympics. Credit: TopFoto

Drake agreed that this was an image that ticked all the boxes. “We wanted to show that we could run,” he said. “We particularly liked the picture because their feet are in the air and it shows that they’re actually moving quickly.”

But perhaps just as importantly, Drake acknowledged the subtext of the photo. “It was supposed to show that we have these different races and they’re all accepted equally.”

The only thing that separates those men is the speed with which they can move their legs; the picture is a human race and a depiction of the human race.

Also encoded in the frame are other details that sports fans on Earth would simply take for granted.

Lomberg explained that it was helpful that the runners had competition numbers on their singlets -- 773, 603, 932 and 901 -- which might tell the extraterrestrials that we use numbers and units.

If you squint closer, you can just make out a blurry crowd of spectators in the background. It reveals that we have competitive sports and sports as entertainment.

“We showed her because she was the person who happened to be in that wonderful stroboscopic picture. If it had been an unknown high school gymnast, I would still have sent that picture.”

Jon Lomberg

Lomberg is a sports fan and admits that he was tempted to include some personal favorites.

“I love the Boston Red Sox and I would have loved to show Ted Williams slugging one away,” he said. But as a gymnast himself, Lomberg was particularly drawn to the image of Rigby on the balance beam.

“I won’t deny that I was partial to it,” he confessed, but the image earned its place on the mission because it “seemed to so beautifully convey a number of things, how we move, balance, and we tried to indicate the amount of time that little passage that she’s doing took -- this is the rate of speed.”

For every picture that was chosen, there were thousands that were not.

The Voyager team had quickly made the decision not to make it a collection of “Earth’s greatest people,” thus liberating them from any accusation of bias. Nothing was selected because of who was in the frame -- the only criteria was what they were doing in it.

“We didn’t show Cathy Rigby because she was at that time perhaps the greatest American gymnast,” Lomberg said.

“We showed her because she was the person who happened to be in that wonderful stroboscopic picture. If it had been an unknown high school gymnast, I would still have sent that picture.”

The two photographs selected to represent sport also included clues about the way humans move. Still, the team admits in hindsight that some of those clues could be misleading; perhaps all humans can walk on their hands, like Cathy Rigby in this stroboscopic image by photographer Phillip Leonian. Credit: Phillip Leonian/Leonian Trust

In the 43 years since Lomberg and his team scrambled to put the collection together, he’s found plenty of images that “should have been on Voyager.”

He has expressed some regret that a team sport wasn’t represented, but the truth was that he had to move on: “I had found those two wonderful pictures of sport and my attention was probably distracted elsewhere because I hadn’t found anything good about agriculture yet.”

The countdown clock to launch was ticking. Voyager would wait for no man.

In later years, the Voyager team has concluded that perhaps some of their picture choices could be misleading.

Rigby’s image might suggest that we can all walk on our hands, while the sprinters might imply that there is a subspecies of humans who all have one leg longer than the other; at least, that’s how it looks in the picture.

Not only that, but some humans can hover four inches in the air -- in the instant that photo was captured, only one man had a foot on the ground.

‘A trip to eternity and the stars’

‘A trip to eternity and the stars’

For the Golden Record research team, finding the images was only a small part of the challenge.

They needed permission from more than 100 photographers or rights holders to use them. That was no easy task in an era before the invention of email had shrunk the world to the size of a keyboard, and the launch date was looming.

In the end, there were two problems to navigate, only one of which proved to be insurmountable.

Image number 70 features the pre-eminent mountain climber Gaston Rébuffat, balancing improbably on a jagged mountain peak. Drake chuckled when recalling how hard it was to find someone who “spends most of his time on the top of peaks in the Alps! But most of the photographers were just delighted to have their pictures used.”

How does Earth sound? Recorded greetings, sounds and music also traveled to space


There were more than just photos on the Golden Record, adding another level of rights and permissions for the team to sort. Most people they asked said yes without hesitation – but you won’t find the Beatles on there; the inclusion and immortality of arguably mankind’s most famous pop group was denied by the record company. NASA

“There was the awful question of copyrights and permission fees,” remembered Lomberg, but usually the wonder of the mission was enough to smooth things over.

When it came to Leonian’s stroboscopic rendering of Rigby, “We could offer no payment at all — except a trip to eternity and the stars. That was enough for Phil.”

It wasn’t enough, however, when it came to some of the music.

Embedded on the Voyager disc are pieces composed by Ludwig van Beethoven, Johann Sebastian Bach and Igor Stravinsky; Chuck Berry and Louis Armstrong are featured, but there is nothing by The Beatles, the biggest pop band of the time -- if not the biggest pop band of all time.

“We kept telling [the record company] that this will immortalize The Beatles,” said Drake. “‘No,’ was the response. ‘We don’t give our copyright to anyone.’”

On August 16, 1977 -- just four days before the launch of the first Voyager probe -- Elvis Presley died at his home in Memphis; one of the most significant cultural icons of the 20th century was gone at the age of 42.

How an Olympic image achieved immortality A set of athletes at the Munich Olympics were going to become one of the lasting images of humanity. - 2:15

It speaks volumes about the tastes of the Golden Record team that they never considered “The King of Rock and Roll” for the ride into space, but it perhaps says even more about the intensity of their project in the final days that Lomberg told CNN he wasn’t even aware that Elvis had left the metaphorical building.

The thought never occurred to Drake, Lomberg and their colleagues that maybe they should also have asked the subjects of the photos, the people who were actually going to be acting as unwitting ambassadors for all of mankind -- and even if it had, there never would have been enough time.

“To have to track down the people in the photographs would have been impossible,” Lomberg reflected, “but I think an athlete competing at a public event, by definition, allows himself or herself to be photographed. And I assumed that Cathy Rigby had given Phillip Leonian permission, so we got rights from him.”

“I think they should be delighted,” he continued. “How many people get a chance to have their picture sent into space? Much less being told that it’s going to last for hundreds of millions of years and may be seen by extraterrestrials. It’s overwhelming; it’s one of the things that has to make you smile and shiver at the same time.”

What’s Google?

What’s Google?

In 2010, Moorosi was in his mid-60s. He couldn’t have known it then, but he was in the twilight of his life; early in 2013, he would die of cancer.

Recently, CNN gathered his widow, son, daughter and granddaughter around their computer in Lesotho to learn more about him.

“He asked me one day, what’s this Google thing?” recalled his son Mocheko. “So I explained to him that it’s a search engine where you can find anything that’s a public record. So he typed his name and a lot of pictures came up.”

Among the images on his computer screen: round one, heat three of the 1972 200m event in Munich. He’d never seen it before. “He was amazed!” Mocheko remembered.

What Motsapi never knew, and what his family never knew, was what else happened to that picture.

On the video call, CNN laid out what our reporting had uncovered so far -- why the picture was chosen, where the probe had been, what it was doing now and how it would still exist when we had all been ground to dust.

Unmute Mute
Video call: Moorosi family reaction

They listened intently and when asked how they felt about it -- after a brief pause to account for the satellite delay -- there was a synchronized explosion of joy.

“Wow!” Everyone in the room was laughing and smiling, unable to fully process what they’d just learned.

Beyond the profound magnitude of Motsapi’s involvement with Voyager, his family kept coming back to the number 120; only 120 images were chosen, and he was one of them.

Asked how they thought he would have responded, had he known, his widow Mamocheko said, “Just laughing and laughing and smiling and smiling, saying ‘I cannot believe this is really happening.’ I think he would have been so amazed.”

In a separate call, one of his best friends and former business partner Dan O’Connell choked up as he thought about Motsapi.

“This is a great story to honor this guy,” he said. “Maybe his soul is going all over the universe now and you couldn’t have a brighter person who would be caring for all people. I would say Motsapi deserves his place on that spaceship.”

Fascinated by stars

Fascinated by stars

When Roberts was a child, he would look up at the night sky in Trinidad and wonder what could be up there.

Representing humanity A picture of a human race and the human race


Being selected to represent the best of humanity is not an easy thing to wrap one’s head around. When Roberts looks at the photo now, with his sprinting form frozen in time -- for all time -- he sees “a person who loves track and field, [and] not only a love of track and field, but a love of human beings.” TopFoto

He says he was fascinated by the stars, but it never occurred to him that he might one day be among them. Roberts was much more interested in moving fast on the ground beneath his feet.

As for the picture which is now in space, he’d never even seen it until he opened an email from CNN more than 40 years after the launch date.

After a quick discussion, he was asked how he felt about it and his response implied he was struggling to truly comprehend his association with Voyager.

“The picture has gone to outer space and so on and so forth,” Roberts said. “It was sent off into space and, well, the purpose, whatever purpose it was.”

Should the researchers have asked for his permission?

“Well, they could have asked,” he said, “but they would have got permission. You know, it's once in a lifetime that you get an opportunity for something like that. By them sending it out, it still means something to me and the rest of my family.”

By the end of our conversation, one sensed that Roberts had a clearer understanding of the Voyager project; what does he think when he looks at the picture of his younger self?

“I see a person who loves track and field, [and] not only a love of track and field, but a love of human beings,” Roberts said. “I see myself representing not only my country, Trinidad and Tobago, I'm representing myself and other people of color. I think of everybody as one -- we are one human being.”

What do aliens eat?

What do aliens eat?

Su got a call from his granddaughter recently, who was excited to share some news. She told him that she was the fastest runner in her kindergarten class; he said that she must have inherited his runner genes.

Shortly afterwards, he got another call, this time from the Chinese Taipei Olympic Committee, informing him that CNN was seeking an interview. This would be a blast from his Olympic past -- the subject was a photograph from 48 years ago.

Until that moment, Su had never seen the image of himself, Moorosi, Borzov and Roberts, and after fate had drawn them all together for just under 22 seconds in Munich, he doesn’t think that he ever saw them again. He remembers Borzov, though, both the name and his incredible speed.

He’s familiar with the Voyager mission, but what he knows he has learned from watching documentaries about it on television; he couldn’t believe that he had anything to do with it. When informed that his image will be cruising through the cosmos for an inconceivable amount of time, he leaned forward to take it all in, and then he just laughed and laughed.

Searching for another life Scientific explorations and other-worldly aspirations


The odds of Voyager ever being found by another form of intelligent life are slim, but not zero -- and already, the twin probes have surpassed all scientific expectations. Su Wen-ho isn’t giving up hope. If he ever got the chance to meet an alien, he’d want to know: “What do you eat?” NASA

“This is really so exciting, so exciting,” he told CNN, speaking in Mandarin. “Millions of years and it still floats in space. I am just so proud and so excited.” Still smiling, he sat back in his chair to contemplate the magnitude of it all.

Everybody on the Voyager team accepts that the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence is a long shot, but to Su, it’s worth rolling the dice. “I do believe there are aliens,” he said. “There are so many planets, hundreds of thousands of them out there. Wouldn’t there be any life forms in one of them?”

Unmute Mute
Video call: Su Wen-ho reaction

If he ever got the chance to meet an alien and ask a question, his enquiry would be childlike in its curiosity: “Suppose that we can understand each other, I want to ask, ‘What do you eat there?’ That’s what I want to know: what do they eat?” He laughs again.

It may take some time for Su to fully process the enormity of what he has just learned, but he’s thrilled to have played a small part in Voyager. The next time his granddaughter goes to school, she’ll have an out-of-this-world story for her classmates at show-and-tell.

‘Do not return without a victory!’

‘Do not return without a victory!’

As the golden disc team was hastily collating their picture album of humanity, they couldn’t escape the politics of the day; the late 1970s represented the mid-point of the Cold War. It is a testament to the integrity of their mission statement that these American scientists and researchers included such a prominent image of a Soviet icon, Borzov.

As he was making his final selections, Lomberg felt that the presence of Rigby and Borzov, an American and Soviet featured so prominently in adjacent images, provided an element of balance and fairness.

However, given how bitterly competitive the two programs were during the space race, he has often wondered if the Soviets would have extended America the same courtesy -- had the Golden Record been compiled behind The Iron Curtain.

To any alien life form in the distant future, such a detail will be utterly irrelevant but the gesture wasn’t lost on Borzov himself; he remembers how Communist Party members tried to motivate the Soviet team in 1972, saying “It’s a golden jubilee, 50 years since the formation of the Soviet Union! You’re going into the enemy’s lair! Do not return without a victory!”

He’d already traveled the world and explained, “We knew better than them how Americans actually behaved. I remember what was nice -- a hot dog and a glass of Coca-Cola. We didn’t need that kind of rhetoric instilled in us before our departure.”

“We knew better than them how Americans actually behaved. I remember what was nice -- a hot dog and a glass of Coca-Cola. We didn’t need that kind of rhetoric instilled in us before our departure.”

Valeriy Borzov

Borzov was vaguely aware that his image was associated with the Voyager project, but only because some local journalists wrote about it several years later. And until CNN contacted him, he’d never seen the picture.

Surprisingly, he doesn’t particularly like it, exclaiming, “It’s not the best photo!”

“Firstly, the running position is not the best. The starting position is when the muscles are visible and there is a certain posture where you can see power and character -- this is some sort of frame between moments.” He went on, “I don’t like such photographs and this is one of the preliminary races, a work-in-progress, not the historical one. It’s not the final shot.”

Nonetheless, he has wondered why he was chosen. Without prompting, he volunteers that he ran as a clean athlete, without resorting to the doping techniques that marred much of the Soviet athletic program. “I wasn’t inflated,” he said, noting that you can tell the difference between “a running cockerel and a broiler chicken.”

Maybe he was chosen for his running style, which -- in his words -- could be described as “classic, light and with great power and intelligence.” Or maybe it was his all-around character, his “unification of power, sportiness, physical qualities, intellectual, psychological and other gentleman-like qualities.”

Borzov is now learning the truth about how and why he was sent to the stars and his reaction is humble and earthly: “To be told that you are flying outside of our civilization would be a kick to a sane person. But the most important thing is that it’s a compliment from the Americans. That deserves both praise and gratitude.”

“This is something that obviously really touched me, and this is something that cannot be measured.”

‘Blown away’

‘Blown away’

Of all the Voyager athletes, it’s clear that Rigby has the greatest understanding of the project; it’s something that she has spent a fair amount of time thinking about.

Like Roberts, she wishes that she’d been asked, but only so that she could have watched the launch and enjoyed it in the moment. “I would have said yes anyway,” she added quickly.

“I was blown away,” she said. “I don't often mention it and I don't know why I don't, because besides being born, having children and dying, it is the most profound thing I can imagine in a person's life because you get to be a representative of humanity.

“It’s like an adventure that you’ve been put on and you just go, ‘Wow, why me?’”

After retiring from her gymnastics career in 1972, Rigby has spent much of the rest of her life performing on stage. It’s somehow fitting that she became well known for playing Peter Pan, J. M. Barrie’s fictional character -- the boy who could fly amongst the stars.

She draws on that character to try and find the words: “It’s a dream, like Peter Pan says, this great adventure that you will never know what ultimately happens.”

Where are they now? Four sprinters and a gymnast reflect on this “great adventure”


In their own way, all five athletes had post-Olympic careers that provided guiding lights in the lives of others. Rigby went on to star in musical theater and now teaches children with special needs; Roberts taught PE for more than four decades; Moorosi worked with the Lesotho department of Education and Sport; Su became a professor of health management in Taiwan; Borzov was a minister and lawmaker. Ethan Miller/Getty Images

“It's just not something that you can wrap your mind around,” she continued. “But your heart can and your imagination can, and it gives you a tingly feeling.”

While the Voyager athletes were chosen to help teach other worlds about our own, many of them ultimately found that profession down here on Earth.

Roberts taught PE for more than four decades; for a period of time after the Olympics, Moorosi worked with the Lesotho government in their department of Education and Sport, and Su became a professor of health management in Taiwan. Borzov was a minister and a lawmaker, and all, in their own way, were pioneers.

Rigby now works with children with special needs. “I find my favorite thing is when those children have that ‘aha moment,’ when all of a sudden, they do something that they thought impossible. And they look at you and go ‘what just happened?’”

‘Voyager continues to surprise us’

‘Voyager continues to surprise us’

When Voyager was launched, nobody involved could have predicted that it would become one of NASA’s signature missions.

“Apart from [the movie] ‘Star Wars,’ what else are we talking about from 1977?” mused Lomberg. “I think if we’d known that, it might have been a little daunting -- the weight of responsibility might have been too much.”

Lomberg and his colleagues have often wondered how on Earth they were able to pull it off in such a short period of time, and what would happen if they were to try and do it again.

Drake speculates that the enhanced technology and the greater scope for images and information today would make the process “a nightmare.”

“I’m glad we’re not going to do this again,” he said, “because it’s going to require work beyond our lifetimes and it’ll still not be ready.”

Voyager is already a remarkable success story. The discoveries on Jupiter’s volcanic moon Io, the oceans of Europa, Titan’s methane seas and the extraordinary snapshot of our tiny, insignificant little speck of a planet amidst the solar system are all testament to that.

Perfect symbol of humanity How one picture can tell two stories


Every record has two sides, and history might just be the same. The image selected from the 1972 Munich Olympics is not the one you’d expect, and that’s exactly the point. There are no pictures of violence or terror or war or famine on Voyager’s Golden Record: just humanity as it should aspire to be. UN Photo/Yutaka Nagata

“Voyager continues to surprise us,” said NASA’s chief project scientist Stone, who remains in that role today -- 43 years later and at the age of 84. “The spacecraft was able to do much more than we had hoped it could do.”

“The spacecraft was able to do much more than we had hoped it could do.”

Ed Stone

Both Voyager probes, each equipped with an identical Golden Record, have left the protective heliospheric bubble around the Sun and have entered interstellar space -- a first for a man-made object. Voyager 1 crossed over in August 2012, Voyager 2 in November 2018.

Remarkably, both continue to transmit data back to Earth.

As NASA’s engineers celebrated the milestone of entering interstellar space -- an end of sorts to the original mission -- the men and women behind the golden disc knew that their adventure was only just beginning.

Nobody knows if it will ever be found, because even if there is another form of intelligent life out there, the chances they would pickup Voyager are incredibly slim.

“It will orbit the center of the Milky Way galaxy every 259 million years and will unlikely ever be found,” Stone said. “But it will serve as our silent ambassador to the galaxy. The calling card is the Golden Record.”

In the time that it’s taken you to read this far, the Voyager probes have each travelled roughly 10,000 miles on the edge of our solar system.

It’s already 43 years down the road, but in the grand scheme of things, it’s hardly gone anywhere -- it will take around 40,000 years to drift even close to another star.

Its golden disc is a tiny message in a bottle, pitched into the greatest expanse of oceans.

“Everybody would say that the chances are very, very small,” Lomberg said, “but the fact that it’s not zero can keep you up at night.”

If found, it will be an introduction from our distant past, an introduction that presents only the best of how we used to be.

There are no pictures of violence, no atomic mushroom cloud, or even the peace-loving Muhammad Ali, who could have been misinterpreted if he was included slugging Joe Frazier.

There is no discrimination or prejudice on Voyager -- just humanity as we should aspire to be.

However, one of the signature images, picture #72, will have come from an event more commonly remembered in our time for violence and despair: the 1972 Munich Olympics.

It’s a thought that had never occurred to Lomberg, but it’s a paradox that he thinks sums up what humanity is all about.

“This was the Olympics where, while men of different races were competing fairly at the same time, this horrible thing happened.”

Every record, even Voyager’s Golden Record, has two sides, and history might just be the same.

“Maybe there’s a flip side to every one of those pictures -- at the same time this happened, this was happening too,” Lomberg reflected.

“The fact that this Olympics could end up being symbolic of two different things, in a way is a perfect symbol of humanity. We’re neither one nor the other -- somehow we’re both at the same time.”